January 30th 2019
Experience a unique, high-flying fiesta without leaving the ground when you venture into indigenous towns of Guatemala on Nov. 1 to witness spectacular celebrations of All Saints Day (Todos Santos).
Mixing indigenous rites with a touch of Christian beliefs and pop culture, the annual Festival of the Giant Kites (La Feria de Barriletes Gigantes) features colorful, hand-crafted kites sent aloft by families and friends who gather in cemeteries and open fields to honor deceased relatives.
Steer your small adventure group to the Guatemalan towns of Sumpango or Santiago Sacatepéquez, both an easy drive from Antigua, to join the celebrations. More than a visual feast, the events also include a great assortment of traditional street food, drink stands, music, and contests.
Like GPS for returning spirits
The celebration dates back to pre-Columbian cultures, which frowned on mourning, believing it to be disrespectful because the departed remained alive in memory and spirit.
Tradition also holds that once a year, souls can return for 24 hours to visit the living. To help the spirits find their waiting families, kites serve as a paper-and-string GPS in the sky to guide them. The date, Nov. 1, coincides with the Catholic observance of All Saints Day.
As the ancient tradition evolved, families attached messages to their loved ones on the kite’s tail or string. When the message worked its way up and finally touched the kite itself, it was believed that the intended soul had received the greeting.
In recent years, social messages have also been going aloft on such topics as women’s justice, indigenous rights, violence, politics, the environment, and other issues.
Relatives of the deceased and teams of kite-builders use bamboo, glue, string, and tissue paper to form their delicate creations, which feature colorful designs that differ every year.
A colorful swarm in the sky
You’ll see kites of all sizes, from light and simple varieties to massive works stretching 65 feet across. Kite-making teams (barrileteros) don’t even try to launch these biggest kites; instead, they’re hoisted up by rope and displayed upright, serving as impressive, free-standing artwork with images of people, landscapes, and messages.
The largest airborne kites measure about 20 feet in diameter and require several people to handle the ropes. Like giants dominating a swarm, these mega-kites stand out in the sky among dozens, if not hundreds, of smaller ones.
Most kites have an overall octagonal shape but more rounded than a corner stop sign. The Maya use four of the sides to represent the cardinal directions, while the other four symbolize the corona (crown of the sun). Loose strips of paper dangle from four sides; when the wind ruffles the fringed paper, the noise deters evil spirits, as the tradition goes.
Work on the bigger kites begins many months in advance, starting with design — a closely guarded secret until the festival begins — and collection of raw materials to build the kite.
Kite-building teams use natural ingredients primarily, starting with bamboo to frame the large kites and, for the smaller ones, stalks of a wheat-like plant (castilla) that are woven together. Even the glue is organic, comprised of yucca flour, lemon peel, and water. Colorful tissue paper is one of the commercially made elements of the kites, and you’ll feel the kite-makers’ pain if brisk wind or a colliding kite rips the delicate paper and sends the flying masterpiece tumbling to the ground.
Special meal for the occasion
The Kite Festivals at Sumpango and Santiago Sacatepéquez stand out for their block-party atmosphere in open soccer fields, but small, low-key observances can be found throughout Guatemala in town cemeteries.
Relatives gather to clean the family grave and surrounding area, often placing fresh flowers and wreaths at the burial plot to honor their departed loved ones. Often the scent of traditional incense (copal) permeates the air as modest, lovingly made kites flutter into the sky.
A highly anticipated social affair, the observance brings families and friends together to catch up and share traditional food, most notably a special salad called fiambre, prepared once a year specifically for All Saints Day.
If you’re thinking of fall travel dates for your small group adventure trip to Guatemala, be sure to set aside Nov. 1 for the colorful Kite Festival, a celebration like no other.
For more information on Guatemala check out our other articles such as Semana Santa (Easter) – another great festival, Uaxactun eco community experience in the northern jungles of Guatemala and our summary of traditional Guatemalan street food.
January 30th 2019